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Scorsese and the Oscars: Actors’ Wins, For and Against (1973 – 1991)

Heading into the 1973 Oscars, up-and-coming actor Robert De Niro was hotly fancied for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. And he had two very good chances, one with John Hancock’s baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly, and another in a small New York picture called Mean Streets – directed by Martin Scorsese. Come nominations morning however, De Niro’s name was nowhere to be seen. A few heads were shaking, especially as his co-star Vincent Gardenia was nominated for Bang the Drum Slowly instead.

Meanwhile, Ellen Burstyn was nominated for Best Actress, and a definite contender, for William Friedkin’s 10-time nominated The Exorcist. The actress would not win this time. Statistically, even today, horror flicks have little chance in the main categories. In other news, Burstyn would warm up the studios holding the script of a small movie named Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, ultimately getting it the green light. Seeking a director who was on the brink of making the big time, and Martin Scorsese looking to continue his learning journey following the raw, candid Mean Streets, Burstyn was instrumental in the director being hired.

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A year late, the Oscars 1974, De Niro was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and won, for The Godfather Part II. One of three from the mafia sequel competing in the category. De Niro was not present to take his gold on this occasion. Incidentally, Burstyn would win the Best Actress prize this time, for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But she also could not attend the ceremony, even though a clause in her Broadway show contract meant she could.

Debate between yourselves whether both acting talents being left out in the cold the previous year helped pushed them to victory here. Regardless, both were very worthy winners. It was none other than Burstyn’s director, Martin Scorsese, who was to come to the stage and accept the award on her behalf. Incredibly, it would be three decades before he had one of his own.

Of course, six years later, De Niro would conquer once again. This time in the Best Actor category for Raging Bull. The first of many Scorsese films that were filed under “How did he not win that year?”. Many would argue that Taxi Driver in 1976 fits in that box, except Scorsese was not nominated for Best Director. And with the likes of All the President’s Men and Network in the high-end running, Scorsese’s film had little chance anyway. Rocky was victorious in the end, so it was all just hearsay, to be filed in an altogether different Academy Awards winners box.

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Speaking of the boxing movie, Scorsese and De Niro would be invited back to the Oscars for the 1980 awards. This time, both nominated, and at the helm of all manner of buzz, for Raging Bull. Restaurant manager Joe Pesci would also return to acting after an eight year hiatus, nabbing an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

With eight nominations in total, Raging Bull could have / should have been a contender. But Scorsese’s extraordinary, bravura direction, arguably his greatest, lost out in both Best Director and Best Picture to actor-turned-director Robert Redford’s moving family melodrama Ordinary People. The world, though, just about kept its rotation going when well deserved Robert De Niro and Thelma Schoonmaker won the film’s only Oscars for Best Actor and Best Film Editing respectively. Still a bitter pill to swallow.

Fans and film-lovers alike were still probably shaking their heads at Raging Bull‘s defeat some eight years later, when Scorsese was nominated for Best Director again. This was The Last Temptation of Christ‘s sole nod. Two year’s prior, Scorsese had directed Paul Newman to a Best Actor Oscar for revisiting the role of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money. A Best Director win was a long time coming for Scorsese, but he was having a great run with his gold-grabbing actors. Two years later, Joe Pesci would win Best Supporting Actor under Scorsese’s rule.

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And so to the best films of 1990 competing at the Academy Awards. Another string to Scorsese’s bow of near-misses for one of his masterpieces. And the filmmaker would lose Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay to Dances with Wolves – the Academy’s semi-decade honoring of the classic epic. Directed of course by actor-turned-director Kevin Costner. Not again. Scorsese was also a producer on The Grifters, and even that failed to make the Best Picture line-up – though Stephen Frears made the Best Director cut. Swings and roundabouts.

Many will argue that Goodfellas would have won had it not been for Dances with Wolves. I’m not so sure. Ghost was massive, with a heart-warming appeal of remembering the love of the dead in the rise of a very real AIDS epidemic. One which was taking baby steps into film narrative. And Ghost, which walked away with two big awards in the end, was a film that ticked all the right boxes with critics, audiences, and voters. Even without a Best Director nomination – which had not happened since, well, the previous year (were Scorsese and De Niro of all people presented the Best Director award to Oliver Stone). At the time of the Goodfellas year, I also believed that AMPAS were just not ready to reward a violent crime picture for the top award. This was not 1971. Or 1972. Or 1974.

And then The Silence of the Lambs goes and wins the big five Oscars the very next year. Besting the one-time favorite, Bugsy. Also pretty violent. No nominations for Scorsese though with his nightmarish (and violent) Cape Fear remake. A film Spielberg eventually turned down, to make Hook instead. Go figure. Scorsese was a hard sell too, reading the script numerous times and not particularly liking it. Once his flair was executed however, the modern Cape Fear was a boisterous, terrifying roller-coaster. The over-the-top but frightening Robert De Niro was a Best Actor contender once again (nominated the previous year too for Awakenings), joining teenager Juliette Lewis as the only mentions for the film. Neither won, as expected.

Check out the next two parts:

1993 – 2002

2004 – 2016


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